Project Canterbury

The Catholic Life

Addresses and Papers Delivered at the Fourth Annual Catholic Conference
New York City, November 13th to 15th, 1928.

Auspices of the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests.

Milwaukee: Morehouse
London: A. R. Mowbray, 1929.

Sermon at Opening Service, St. Ignatius' Church

Bishop Coadjutor of Vermont

"By what authority doest thou these things, and who gave thee this authority?" (Saint Matthew 21:23.)

OUR LORD'S AUTHORITY was again and again challenged throughout His earthly life. He was called into question regarding His observance of the Sabbath, regarding His teaching about the forgiveness of sins, regarding His teaching about prayer, and above all regarding His statements about His relation to His heavenly Father. In fact, He was in a lifelong conflict with the religious leaders of His time. It is obvious that this conflict was the chief cause that brought about His death. It was not until the mystery of this great sacrifice began to be understood after His Resurrection, and more completely after His Ascension that the real source of His authority was in any way understood. It was His deliberate offering of Himself, His voluntary and heroic facing of all possible consequences in a resolute determination to draw out all the hatred and dissension in His worst enemies that was ultimately to reveal the real motive of His life. It was this intentional will to love throughout all of His earthly relationships that was the answer given by His life, if not by His lips, to the questions so often put to Him, "By what authority doest thou these things?"

The tragic conflict between our Lord's life and those in authority has been cited by the so-called liberals as their ground for defiance of all legal regulation. This spirit of freedom often seems to find its truest expression in disobedience rather than in obedience. Here we find a danger and a confusion that have not been growing less in these latter years. It is well known that our Catholic revival has been to a very large degree a series of struggles between consecrated individuals on the one hand and the recognized powers of the Church on the other. The results of these conflicts have often been most difficult to understand. Those who denounce the right of private judgment seem to be sometimes in practice the strongest exponents of such a theory. Those who stand for the authority of the Church seem to be the greatest enemies of the established authority. Herein lies a paradox that is fraught with practical dangers as well as with intellectual confusion. Just now in this country the Catholic revival seems to have fallen on peaceful days. The protests that arise from time to time are interesting because they are so rare and because they are so ineffective. There is an unwritten compact between all parties to let each other alone, a kind of truce in order that we may keep our ecclesiastical equilibrium. Such a condition has its dangers as well as its advantages. Warfare keeps a people vigilant although it may create many prejudices. If bishops and vestries are for the most part silent, perhaps weary of trying to thwart an over-zealous lot of people, may it not be a good time for the Catholics to re-examine their own motives and to search once more the ground of their authority?

Many of us might find it profoundly difficult to answer the question, "By what authority doest thou these things?" To trace the connection between the authority of the Church and our own religious experience is indeed no simple problem. To vindicate our motives and our actions before God and man, when they seem in clear defiance of the expressed regulations of the body to which we owe our allegiance, demands a degree of honesty and scrutiny which are all too difficult to attain. To find the source of our religious authority might be likened to finding the source of a river. A river may be said to have many sources. Every tributary, every little mountain stream, is fed by some hidden spring, all of which are seeking the open sea. So with the hidden sources of religious thought. They are flowing on from the hidden depths of our inmost nature through our awakened consciousness and our active intelligence out into action and character. The relation of these can only be revealed after a considerable period of time.

It is in retrospect that we best understand ourselves. It is in the historical spirit that our great thinkers, such as Hooker and others, have shown us that the strength of the Church consists in an "uncompromising loyalty to the three-fold claims of Scripture, tradition, and reason." In some such unity we see the tributaries flowing together in the main current of our present-day Church life. Each contribution has its own distinct origin—revealed Scripture, corporate authority, and individual experience. Each has its own adherents and its own recognized claims. Our "three party" system is too well known to need be commented upon. Each has its authority and its adherents—the old-fashioned Evangelicals, the old-fashioned High Churchmen, and the Liberals.

Where, then, is the place for the Catholic? Are we not right in claiming that the Catholic believes in the unity of all these parties in a growing organic fellowship? If we understand the Catholic revival, it would seem to reveal above all else this new idea of relationship, a new conception of unity, a new faith in the interdependence of each part upon the other in the body of Christ. We are reminded that Christ was more than the embodiment of the old law and of the prophets. He was the fulfillment of these in the perfect God and the perfect man. Likewise the Catholic faith is more than an amiable agreement in a working relationship between existing factions in the Church. It is the loving, living fellowship of all members of the body filled with a spirit of her victorious Head. The Catholic faith, we believe, rests upon a profound conviction that the Holy Spirit transmitted the fulness of the divine life to the body of believers at Pentecost and that this same Holy Spirit likewise transmits the completeness of this same divine life by His own indwelling Presence in the regenerated waters of baptism, and throughout the entire sacramental life of the Church. To us this unity means a dynamic synthesis of forces which otherwise create a hopeless deadlock. As Christ raised Judaism and all other religions to a new level, transformed them into a new relationship with God and man, so His Spirit has been transforming the human elements which contribute to our understanding of God to an essential unity which is deeper and stronger than all our explanations. In some such faith we begin to see our kinship with the authority of Christ Himself. He was the mystical and moral and sacrificial fulfilment of all the religious elements of His time. So He claimed the right to lead all seekers after truth into a perfect fellowship with God; and His Spirit in like manner guides His Church and every member of the same. To believe in His divine life in any manifestation of His love is to be guided on through the different degrees of His revelation into the fulness of the Catholic faith. The Incarnation has begun to be believed only when it leads us to the Cross, and the Atonement is a practical part of our faith only when it comes to us from our risen Lord by His Holy Spirit. Here we begin to see in terms of theology and life the beginning of our own profound dependence upon mysteries which outrun our reason. In some such way we begin again to recognize that the essential unity of the Church behind all party lines lies in the unity of His Spirit, which is the real life of every professing member of His Body. To believe that His Holy Spirit was given to every baptized person is to see in Evangelicals as well as in Liberals the vital origin of the entire faith of the Church. The test of our faith today lies more in our ability to believe in the fulness of this gift than in our denials of any rights on the part of those who may not see as we do.

The unity of the soul with God through Christ by His Holy Spirit as the source of our authority should not only disarm criticism from within, but it should arm us with a power for a new aggressive warfare against spiritual wickedness in high places. To see the Catholic revival in terms of a vision of corporate unity and to believe in our authority from Christ is to turn our attention from dissensions within, most of which have seemed utterly futile, to a real warfare against the countless enemies of our Lord outside the Church. We can best vindicate our authority today by a new evangelism which throws itself against the greed, hypocrisy, and indifference of this age in a sacrificial determination to bring Christ to a lost world.

This theme of a living synthesis of the different parts of the Body in a working whole is more than an abstract idea. It is a basic principle in the very nature of the Church and of her founder. Since Bishop Weston of Zanzibar wrote that notable book, The Fulness of Christ, this thought of the upbuilding of each part in the whole has been more and more a dominant idea in the modern mind. Kenneth Ingram has likewise set forth the same conception most forcibly in his little book, Why I Believe. On many sides we see this constructive thesis being worked out. From the psychological standpoint Dean Bennett of Chester has reversed the process of psycho-analysis in his most helpful book called Psycho-synthesis, or the Making of a Soul. In a compelling presentation Dr. Hanford Henderson sets forth this idea of the spiritual and intellectual unity of Christianity in a brief article in a recent number of Harper's Magazine under the caption of A Modern Christian Speaks. We are becoming increasingly conscious of a new kind of unity or fulness or wholeness, something that calls for an up-building rather than a taking apart. We know beyond all doubt today that there can be no real separation between metaphysics and ethics, or between creed and conduct. The structure of our own inmost interdependence comes home to us as a new revelation of the character of God. We know the unity of the divine because of His union with the human. We only really know ourselves as we find ourselves in Him. We only really know each other as we find each other in Him. We cannot break our own natures into various parts except temporarily.

"Thought, desire, and will are indissoluble elements," as Canon Streeter says, "in a single vital process." Likewise the Evangelical, the Traditionalist, and the Liberal are indissoluble elements in the vital process of the Lord's redemption through His Body. The more clearly we see this living interdependence of each part upon the whole and of the whole reproduced in each part, the more reasonably and the more cogently can we show forth to an unbelieving world the majesty of the Christian religion.

Herein lies the Catholic's great opportunity today. Centering all our authority in the person of our incarnate Lord, we are sent out to proclaim a Gospel of full and ever-fulfilling love. The tension may never cease, but the spiritual power I will ever transform this struggle from confusion to certainty.

There are forces and facts which make the relation between revelation and reason a constant pull, like the law of supply and demand in economics. Such tension we see between the Traditionalist on the one hand and the Liberal on the other; between those who would center their authority in a legal statement and those who would center authority in a personal experience. But to the Catholic this tension is simply I the reminder of the constant need of the Cross, "the ground plan of creation." It is a perpetual challenge to a new self-dedication. At the Cross and at the altar these divisive forces are balanced, interpreted, and transformed. To us the Atonement is no longer a mere doctrine whereby we try to satisfy the mind regarding an insoluble problem. It is the living appeal of our beloved Friend who would have us be loyal.

The altar is not the object of theological dispute but the home-hearth of our beloved Captain. Like the child who unites father and mother in himself and binds them to each other, the mystery of our Lord's love at the Cross has ever been binding man to God and man to man. Herein lies the miracle of our all-sufficient faith. His completeness fulfills our incompleteness, His strength fills full our weakness, His wisdom supplants our folly, His love our selfishness, His life our death. To find Him through His Cross at the heart of the universe is to discover again the real source of our authority, the ground of our faith. "This is eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God." Here we find a unity in the past, the present, and the future which is the unity of time and eternity, the unity of the soul and the body, the unity of God and man. For us, then, who claim Catholic authority in the Body of Christ there must be above all else a consciousness and an evidence of this unifying spirit of love revealed and attested in Holy Scriptures, shared through the ages, and reproduced in the individual in personal experience.

Herein is Catholic authority, a three-fold cord that is not easily broken. We no doubt will be tempted from time to time to go off on one tangent or another. There will be great forces pressing us first in one direction and then in another and we may for the time being seem to lose our balance. But our triune principle will forever lead us back to our established center. With our Evangelicals we must ever be in living agreement, for we believe that God has spoken and His Word is true. We must show all our Protestant brethren that we agree with them wholeheartedly in their adherence to the Bible. With our Traditionalists we must likewise agree that our Lord is the head of His Church, that there is only one truth over all, that dogma and science cannot ultimately be at variance, and that the voice of the Church is divine. With our Liberals we must agree that the Holy Spirit is within us, that He is ever guiding us into all truth and "That He who hath begun a good work in us will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ." To believe that these three are forever converging is to discover a foundation that cannot be easily shaken. To see these three united in our Church today is to find once more the victorious power of a faith which was "Born not of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God," for we believe that "the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." He is our authority and with Him we do these things.

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